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The Wooden Prince

About the Work

Béla Bartók
Quick Look Composer: Béla Bartók
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Iván Fischer, conductor/Beethoven & Bartók Oct. 1 - 3, 2009
© Peter Laki



Béla Bartók was born in Nagyszentmiklós, Hungary [now Sînnicolau Mare, Romania], on March 25, 1881, and died in New York City on September 26, 1945. He composed the one-act ballet The Wooden Prince (in Hungarian, A fából faragott királyfi or "The Prince Carved from Wood," between 1914 and 1916, to a libretto by Béla Balázs. The ballet was first performed on May 12, 1917, at the Hungarian State Opera House in Budapest; the conductor was Egisto Tango, to whom Bartók dedicated the score "in deepest gratitude."
This ballet runs about 45 minutes in performance. Bartók scored it for 4 flutes (third and fourth doubling piccolos), 4 oboes (third and fourth doubling English horns), 4 clarinets (third doubling on small clarinet in E flat, fourth doubling on bass clarinet), 4 bassoons (third and fourth doubling on contrabassoons), 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 2 cornets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bells, xylophone, triangle, castanets, cymbals, snare drum, bass drum, tam-tam), celesta (four hands), 2 harps, and strings.

The Wooden Prince was Bartók's second collaboration with Béla Balázs (1884-1949), a noted Hungarian poet, dramatist, and (later in life) a theoretician of film. In 1911, Bartók wrote his only opera, Duke Bluebeard's Castle, also to a libretto by Balázs. The opera was still unperformed, having failed to win a prize in the competition for which it was submitted, when Balázs presented Bartók with an idea for a new stage work. The story was published in the Christmas 1912 issue of Nyugat ("Occident"), Hungary's leading literary magazine. Bartók composed the music between 1914 and 1916; its premiere at the Budapest Opera was one of the greatest triumphs of Bartók's life. It led to the long-overdue production of Bluebeard, which shared a double bill with The Wooden Prince in 1918.
The ballet represents a side of Bartók that is often overshadowed by his more angularly dissonant and more fiercely rhythmical scores. The idiom of The Wooden Prince is gentler and more Romantic, inspired by Bartók's lifelong love of nature. Of course, the influence of folk music is never far from the surface. The story itself bears the imprint of Hungarian folktales. Appropriately, the Prince's music uses the pentatonic scale Bartók had discovered in the oldest Hungarian folksongs; this style contrasts with the verbunkos tone characterizing the haughty Princess -- this 19th-century, semi-popular Hungarian repertoire carried negative associations for Bartók in the 1910s. True, the opening of the ballet was modelled after the Prelude to Wagner's Rheingold, and the orchestration is often reminiscent of Debussy. Still, Bartók's originality is evident at every turn, and the final apotheosis of nature is entirely expressive of his personal artistic philosophy.

The story of The Wooden Prince concerns two young people finding each other and their struggle to fulfill their love. They must pass the tests set up by the world and prove that they are worthy of one another. In addition, the Princess must learn to overcome her own weaknesses: vanity, indifference, and the appeal of the superficially brilliant.

Preoccupied only with her beauty, a young Princess lives in her fairytale castle in the middle of the forest (Dance 1). A Prince sets out on a journey from a neighbouring castle. He sees the Princess and falls in love with her. He would like to approach her, but the Fairy, who rules over the forces of nature, puts obstacles in his way. The trees of the forest come alive to block his path (Dance 2). The Prince defeats them, only to face a stream overflowing its banks. Finally, he resorts to a ruse, in order to lure the Princess out of her castle. He carves a wooden puppet, and hangs his mantle and crown over it. He cuts off his own hair and puts it on the puppet's head (Dance 3). The Princess, so far untouched by the Prince's amorous words, is delighted with the puppet. She leaves the castle. The Fairy brings the puppet alive by magic. With stiff legs and angular motions, the puppet begins a grotesque dance with the Princess (Dance 4). The Prince, deeply hurt, is left alone. Nature tries to soothe his pain: the Fairy orders the trees and flowers to pay homage to him. The Princess returns with the Wooden Prince. She wants to dance with him again, but the puppet hardly has any life left in it (Dance 5). The Princess throws the puppet away as she notices the Prince, adorned with all the treasures of Nature. She admits her error, but now it is her turn to be rejected (Dance 6). The forces of Nature become active again, putting the Princess to a test. She wants to join the Prince, but the forest blocks her way (Dance 7). She casts off her crown and mantle, and even parts with her beautiful head of hair to be worthy of the Prince's love. The Prince and Princess are finally united, and become one with Nature.

THE LIBRETTIST: BÉLA BALÁZS

Béla Balázs (1884-1949) was an eternally restless and passionate Central European intellectual who firmly believed that the power of the spirit could bring about a better world on earth. He was a religious mystic and a Communist revolutionary, a poet and one of the first theoreticians of film, a Jew with a Hungarian father and a German mother who spent half of his life in exile. He died shortly after his long-awaited return to his native Hungary, just as his fellow Communists, with whom he did not see eye to eye, were taking over the country.
He was born Herbert Bauer in the Hungarian city of Szeged, and studied at the University of Budapest where his roommate was none other than the composer Zoltán Kodály. It was through Kodály that he met Béla Bartók, who later set two of Balázs's dramatic works—Duke Bluebeard's Castle and The Wooden Prince—to music.

The literary career of Béla Balázs (as he had legally called himself since 1913) started most auspiciously when some of his essays and short fiction were accepted for publication in Nyugat ("Occident"), a new but already prestigious journal uniting the finest literati in the country. Balázs showed every promise of remaining a respected member of this illustrious group, but his politics drifted more and more to the left and eventually he came to play an important role in the brief Hungarian Soviet Republic in 1919. After the collapse of this short-lived regime, he had to flee the country.

Emigration set him on a whole new career path. Being bilingual, he quickly established himself as a German writer in Vienna and Berlin, with a new area of specialization: he became a leading expert on film, on which he wrote several books and countless articles. He also developed into a highly successful scriptwriter who helped create dozens of movies over the next two decades. It was primarily in this capacity that he achieved international fame, and it was thanks to a film project that he was first invited to the Soviet Union in 1931. When Hitler came to power two years later, Balázs was stranded in Russia, where he lived through Stalin's purges, the war, evacuation to Kazakhstan, privation and serious illness. Through it all, Balázs remained active as a writer, even though he now had to rely on translators to get his work published. He returned to Hungary immediately after war's end. He continued his literary and cinematographic career at home and received the country's most prestigious state prize in 1949; the same year, he died of a stroke at the age of 64.

On Bartók's 60th birthday in 1941, Balázs, living in Moscow, wrote an open letter to his friend, whom he hadn't seen in many years, and who had emigrated to the United States the year before. The letter remained unpublished, and Bartók never read these words: "We will meet again, back home. I already have opera lyrics for you. Something completely new and completely different from what I wrote for you long ago." Yet the two friends never saw each other again. Bartók died in New York on September 26, 1945, and Balázs wrote in a Hungarian journal he had launched: "I have known only one hero, Béla Bartók. My life is blessed for this…Blessed is my life, because he who has seen a genius has seen God."